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Article

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Disclosure in the Medical Context  

L. Brooke Friley and Maria K. Venetis

For individuals who identify as LGBTQ+, disclosing sexual orientation and/or gender identity can be a complex and risky conversation. However, in the medical context this conversation frequently becomes a central part of communication between patient and provider. Unfortunately, this conversation can also become a barrier that prevents patients from receiving or even accessing necessary medical care. LGBTQ+ individuals have reported experiencing significant discrimination in day-to-day life, and more specifically in patient–provider interactions. This discrimination leads LGBTQ+ individuals to avoid seeking necessary medical care and also frequently results in unsatisfactory care and poor health outcomes. This is of concern as LGBTQ+ individuals present with significantly higher rates of health issues and overall higher risks of cancer, chronic illnesses, and mental health concerns. Unfortunately, many medical providers are unequipped to properly care for LGBTQ+ patients and lack opportunities for education and training. This lack of experience leads many providers to operate medical offices that are unwelcoming or even inhospitable to LGBTQ+ patients, making it difficult for those patients to access inclusive care. This can be of particular concern when the patient’s sexual orientation or gender identity becomes relevant to their medical care, as they may feel uncomfortable sharing that information with a provider. Patient self-disclosure of sexual orientation or gender identity to a medical provider not only can contribute to a more positive relationship and improved quality of care but also can improve the psychological outlook of an LGBTQ+ individual. However, potential stigmatization can lead to the concealment of sexual orientation or gender identity information. These acts of concealment serve as intentional mechanisms of impression management within the patient–provider interaction. When LGBTQ+ patients do discuss their sexual orientation or gender identity with a provider, it is most often because the information is directly relevant to their health and disclosure, and therefore becomes essential and often forced. There are instances where LGBTQ+ patients are motivated to disclose to a provider who they believe will respond positively to information about their sexual orientation or gender identity. Disclosure of sexual orientation or gender identity may be direct in that it is clear and concrete. It may also be indirect in that individuals may use particular topics, such as talking about their partner, to broach the subject. Participants may also use specific entry points in the conversation, such as during taking a medical history about medications, to disclose. Some individuals plan and rehearse their disclosure conversations, whereas others disclose when they feel they have no other choice in the interaction. Increasing inclusivity on the part of providers and medical facilities is one way to promote comfortable disclosure of sexual orientation or gender identity. Additionally, updating the office environment and policies, as well as paperwork and confidentiality procedures, can also promote safe disclosure. Finally, improvements to training and education for healthcare professionals and office staff can dramatically improve interactions with LGBTQ+ patients. All of these efforts need to make integration of knowledge about how LGTBQ+ individuals can disclose comfortably and safely a central part of program design.

Article

Interpersonal Communication Processes Within the Provider-Patient Interaction  

Maria K. Venetis

The degree to which patients are active and communicative in interactions with medical providers has changed in recent decades. The biomedical model, a model that minimizes patient agency in the medical interaction, is being replaced with a model of patient-centered care, an approach that prioritizes the individual patient in their healthcare and treatment decisions. Tenets of patient-centered care support that patients must be understood within their psychosocial and cultural preferences, should have the freedom to ask questions, and are encouraged to disclose health-relevant information. In short, this model promotes patient involvement in medical conversations and treatment decision-making. Research continues to examine approaches to effective patient-centered communication. Two interpersonal processes that promote patient-centered communication are patient question-asking and patient disclosure. Patient question-asking and disclosure serve to inform medical providers of patient preferences, hesitations, and information needs. Individuals, including patients, make decisions to pursue or disclose information. Patients are mindful that the act of asking questions or disclosing information, particularly stigmatized information such as sexual behavior or drug use, could make them vulnerable to perceived negative provider evaluations or responses. Thus, decisions to ask questions or share information, processes essential to the understanding of patient perspectives and concerns, may be challenging for patients. Various theoretical models explain how individuals consider if they will perform actions such as seeking or disclosing information. Research also explains the barriers that patients experience in asking questions or disclosing relevant health information to providers. A review of pertinent research offers suggestions to aid in facilitating improved patient-centered communication and care.